Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV

Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV

Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV

Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV


When the 1990 English docudrama Who Bombed Birmingham? cast serious doubt on the guilt of six men convicted of bombing two British pubs in 1974, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that a "television program alters nothing". But, as Alan Rosenthal concludes, Thatcher was wrong. The film engendered a new inquiry that led to the release of the convicted men.

Rosenthal notes that docudrama wields more influence than the average documentary and that "reality-based stories taken from topical journalism are the most popular drama genre on U.S. and British television today". This three-part collection of diverse and provocative essays addresses the dominant questions and controversies the genre poses.

Defining and examining the rationale of docudrama, the nine essayists in the first part discuss the history and development of docudrama on TV and in film; they also consider the place of truth in docudrama, the main critiques of the form, and the audience's susceptibilities and expectations. In investigating the actual filmmaking process, the eight essays in the second part focus on how "docudrama as a 'commodity' is created in the United States and England". Part essay, part case study, and part interview, this section also explores how Hollywood and the commercial networks as well as producers and writers work and think. The final part presents an in-depth critique of a number of controversial docudramas that have helped form and shape public opinion, including Battleship Potemkin, Roots, Reds, JFK, Mississippi Burning, Schindler's List, and In the Name of the Father.

In addition to Rosenthal, the contributors are John Corner, George E Custen, David Edgar, Leslie Fishbein, GeorgeMacDonald Fraser, Todd Gitlin, Douglas Gomery, Richard Grenier, Sumiko Higashi, Tom W. Hoffer, Jerry Kuehl, Steve Lipkin, Yosefa Loshitsky, Ian McBride, Richard Alan Nelson, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Derek Paget, Robert A. Rosens


In April 1990, an English docudrama called Who Bombed Birmingham? cast serious doubt on the conviction of six men for the bombing of two British pubs in 1974. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said at the time that "a television program alters nothing." She was wrong. The film engendered a new inquiry, and the men were eventually released. Such a reexamination of legal guilt had also been the object of Abby Mann's 1985 film The Atlanta Child Murders, but in the Atlanta case the accused stayed in jail.

In February 1993, almost three years after the airing of Who Bombed Birmingham?, one item above all others dominated the American news media. This was the story of David Koresh and his Branch Davidian cult followers, who were besieged at Waco, Texas, by the FBI. What intrigued me, as I followed the events, was that Koresh was said to have mused with one reporter about who would play him in the film. Maybe Tommy Lee Jones or Bruce Willis.

The end was no joke. Koresh died in a blazing inferno along with eighty others. Yet he was right. They did film his life as Ambush in Waco, though he didn't stay around long enough to say whether they did a good job.

It was an amazing story. It had sex, charismatic personalities, weirdos, religious battles, the lot. No writer could have invented a juicier story. It was made for the screen. Once more, fact was better than fiction.

Taken from the headlines, Who Bombed Birmingham?, The Atlanta Child Murders, and Ambush in Waco made news in their own right and illustrate something of extreme interest. Whether you call them docudramas, dramadocs, fact-fiction dramas, or something even more exotic, one thing is clear: reality-based stories, taken from topical journalism, are the most popular drama genre on U.S. and British television today. In fact, it would be a most unusual week in which Americans did not see featured on TV at least two or three stories based on real incidents. And it has been that way for a long time.

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